Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture

Any changes in your dog's appearance, behavior, activity, eating, drinking, and elimination habits are a reflection of your dog's state of health--physical or emotional. Some things stand out--such as vomiting or diarrhea--and there are things which are not as straightforward.

You are not expected to diagnose your dog, nor should you try. You should, however, be able to tell when and how fast you should see a veterinarian.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture

A lot of things might depend on circumstances, and that's where good judgment is vital. Some things are always an emergency--they are listed below.

  1. Difficulty breathing
  2. Severe pain in any part of the body
  3. Profuse vomiting, particularly associated with an inability to keep down water, blood in the vomit, depression or pain
  4. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at vomiting, especially if associated with an enlarged abdomen
  5. Seizures
  6. A severely depressed attitude or unresponsiveness
  7. Extreme weakness or wobbliness
  8. Large amounts of blood in the stool
  9. Collapse
  10. Bleeding that drips or pools (a “smear” here and there is probably not an emergency)
Note: A sick puppy is always an emergency.

Is there some rule of thumb to use when assessing your dog's symptoms?

Having a way to measure what you're looking at is always helpful. Vital signs, for example, can be measured quite accurately if you know what you're doing. Vital signs include temperature, resting heart rate, resting pulse rate, resting respiratory rate, capillary refill time and color of mucous membranes.

Normal average vital signs ranges:

Temperature 37.5 - 39.2 °C (99.5 - 102.5°F)
Resting Heart Rate 60 - 140 beats/minute
Resting Respiratory Rate 15 - 35 breaths/minute
Capillary Refill Time 1 - 2 seconds
Mucous Membranes pink

Checking vital signs graphic from First Aid for Pets Manual

It is a good idea to learn how to check your dog's vital sign and what is normal for them.

What about things that cannot really be measured?

Here are the criteria I use to get the big picture when my dog looks or acts sick.

  1. Speed of onset
    When something hits like a ton of bricks, out of the blue, there is a great chance are you're looking at an emergency. It might be an acute problem or a chronic one where something has changed dramatically. This can include trauma, injuries, poisoning, venomous bites, but even immune-mediated reactions and some infections. The faster it hits, the faster I am on my way to a veterinarian.

  2. Severity
    For example, did my dog just throw up some bile, a bit of food or something that shouldn't have found its way into their stomach in the first place? Or are they projectile vomiting all over the place? Does my dog just look a bit under-the-weather or are they listless, unresponsive or unable to stand?

  3. Frequency and duration
    Did my dog just throw up once, or do they keep throwing up repeatedly? Is my dog having cluster seizures? Has my dog been having diarrhea for more than a couple of days?

  4. Other symptoms
    Did my dog just had diarrhea or threw up but looks and acts normally otherwise? Or are they having both diarrhea and vomiting, being lethargic, weak, having pale or yellow mucous membranes? The more warning signs pile up, the more urgently your dog needs medical attention.

  5. Circumstances
    Did my dog just have diarrhea or throw up after they snatched something from the garbage? Or did it happen after they were given fatty food? Could my dog had been bitten by a snake or gotten into some rat poison? Were they just hanging out in the garage and could they have licked something toxic?

    Is my dog panting because they just had a good run, because it's hot, or are they panting for no obvious reason? And so on.

The higher your dog's situation ranks in these categories, the faster you should see a vet. That is not to say that progressive or wax and wane situations should be ignored. For example, wax and wane weakness, lethargy, reluctance or inability to walk are a major red flag that could indicate a serious condition such as a bleeding splenic tumor.

As well as conditions that seem relatively low on the panic scale but fail to improve or are progressively getting worse. For example, lameness that's getting worse rather than better--with or without treatment--could indicate bone cancer. Progressive weight loss without an explanation, gradual loss of interest in food, increasing intolerance to exercise ... all these things might not have to be addressed today or tomorrow but should be addressed.

What is the most important thing you can do for your dog's health?

Knowing what is normal for them. If you liked my article, I urge you to also check out Creature Clinic's post and start watching your dog now.

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We are looking forward to seeing you there.

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog now available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is an award-winning guide to help you better understand what your dog is telling you about their health and how to best advocate for them. 

Learn how to see and how to think about changes in your dog’s appearance, habits, and behavior. Some signs that might not trigger your concern can be important indicators that your dog needs to see a veterinarian right away. Other symptoms, while hard to miss, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or limping, are easy to spot but can have a laundry list of potential causes, some of them serious or even life-threatening. 

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is a dog health advocacy guide 101. It covers a variety of common symptoms, including when each of them might be an emergency. 

An award-winning guide for dog parents


  1. Wow, this is SO helpful. I'm going to print out and put on our fridge for future reference. When you are in a medical panic, sometimes it is easy to forget common sense and not remember what to look for or check.

  2. When Layla acts strange and I am not sure of something I always email my vet to ask so as not to stress her out and am blessed that they have that service as it makes life so much easier for me also.

  3. Great post and I love your infographic. I'm shocked to see some pet parents looking for advice in online groups when their dog needs to see a vet asap. Hopefully, this post will help them.

  4. Great post! I would include to pay special attention to any change in behavior, even besides just depression/lethargy. The first sign my older dog had arthritis pain was actually increased 'aggression', and he started trying to hide a lot when he's normally a very sweet, social dog. Luckily we knew that changes in behavior like that = vet and we were able to get his pain managed quickly. Thankfully he quickly went back to being his happy, sweet, friendly self. :)

  5. Great comprehensive post! I'll be pinning this. I agree. One of the best things you can do for your dog or cat is being attentive to what you know is normal for them and spot any changes.

  6. Really helpful post. The general assessment is important - the more info you can give your vet when you call the better.

  7. This is such a great post - and a fabulous infographic! I love that you have so much helpful information packed into this piece - and will share it with our readers!

  8. Babu, our senior dog, is nearly 15. We always keep an eye on his symptoms. He has had vomiting incidents in the past but thankfully that has been due to him eating something off the streets (We live in a big city) and could be easily cured with some chicken and rice.

  9. I love the video. Some people who are visual learners will remember so much of a short video. Vital sign checking should be part of every pet's care.

  10. It is so important to keep all these various factors in mind. I've started making a note of any small issues my dogs have so that I can be more accurate telling my vet about things.

  11. Your posts are always full of super helpful information. Sometimes it's hard to know if your dog is just slowing down due to age or if something is wrong. These guidelines help.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  12. Such a great overall view post. Sometimes it is the little signs that tip us off that something is amiss and a vet visit is needed. Being in tune with our dogs is so important. Pinning this to share!


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